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Rules as Technology

July 30, 2009

Keeping up with the Charter Cities blog, I happily find Paul Romer remixing Thomas Jefferson and Saint Augustine. (As those two are recounted in a post by Lawerence Lessig.) Romer writes:

The distinction between objects and ideas is arguably the most important in economics. In a world with more people, each person has fewer objects but access to more ideas. So far, the benefit we derive from access to more ideas has far outweighed the disadvantage of fewer objects. People today have less arable land per capita, but still consume more food per capita because of all the ideas we have discovered and shared. Most of the work on the economics of ideas has focused exclusively on a subset of ideas, technologies. Economists have been slower to acknowledge the complementary set of ideas, rules.

The word technology comes from “techne,” the ancient Greek for skill or craft–in short, a way of doing things. The older meaning is much broader than our current conception.  It included practices like farming and seamanship. But now, when we speak of technology, we speak mainly of iPhones. Here I find Romer rightfully restoring the broader meaning to the term: rules are a form of technology.

But unlike iPhones, a set of rules is not subject to the constraints of scarcity. In fact, they break them. So not only should we aim to spread superior rule sets–since we lose nothing in the spreading–we should also try to innovate better rule sets. And faster. We need a Silicon Valley for innovating rules.

Anyway, to return to history, here’s Thomas Jefferson, anticipating Romer, writing to Isaac Mcpherson in 1813 on the unlimited fruitfulness of ideas:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

And in a sermon, Augustine before him:

The words I am uttering penetrate your senses, so that every hearer holds them, yet withholds them from no other. Not held, the words could not inform. Withheld, no other could share them. Though my talk is, admittedly, broken up into words and syllables, yet you do not take in this portion or that, as when picking at your food. All of you hear all of it, though each takes all individually. I have no worry that, by giving all to one, the others are deprived. I hope, instead, that everyone will consume everything; so that, denying no other ear or mind, you take all to yourselves, yet leave all to all others. But for individual failures of memory, everyone who came to hear what I say can take it all off, each on one’s separate way.

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3 Comments
  1. July 30, 2009 6:12 pm

    “on the unlimited fruitfulness of ideas”

    As suggested by some comments on the Lessig post, one has to be careful to distinguish between the non-rivalrous and non-excludable quality of ideas. Jefferson goes beyond Augustine in assuming that ideas are both. For Augustine they were excludable. Perhaps most people do not put their lamp under a bowl (Mark 4:21), but at least Jesus believed that people needed encouragement to share their ideas. Why would he have thought so if ideas were non-excludable?

    What makes rules and procedures valuable is their facility of cooperation.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      July 30, 2009 9:22 pm

      Good points. Here and over on Lessig’s blog.

      Thank you!

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